The Industrial Workers of the World’s Freelance Journalists Union is taking steps to combat the theft of freelancers’ intellectual property. The IWW FJU has set up a “Pitch Record Keeper” to help freelance journalists produce third-party verification of story ideas they submit to publications. This way, freelancers will have an independent record of their pitches and the backing of the IWW FJU Legal Committee in the event that a publication unfairly assigns one of their story ideas to another writer.
“Theft and appropriation of intellectual property are commonplace,” says KG, secretary-treasurer of the IWW FJU. “The archetypal example that people worry about is pitch theft, where an outline for an article you send to an editor is commissioned to be written by someone else.”
The Pitch Record Keeper allows freelance journalists to blind copy an email address belonging to the IWW FJU on pitches to publications that they suspect of pitch theft. If their pitch is declined or ignored — but a remarkably similar story is published by the same publication shortly thereafter, the freelancer can contact the IWW FJU Legal Committee to peruse the Pitch Record Keeper.
If the Pitch Record Keeper contains many other pitches to the same publication, it’s an indication that many other freelancers suspect the publication of pitch theft. And while publications often deny individual accusations of pitch theft by citing a story’s general newsworthiness or chalking it up to coincidence, documentary evidence suggesting multiple instances of pitch theft from multiple freelancers is much more difficult to refute.
The IWW FJU is comprised of freelance journalists and other workers in news media. The union is organizing to improve the working conditions of freelancers, who face unique challenges, like pitch theft.
“Freelance journalists, even more so than many other gig workers, tend to be geographically disparate and many work primarily or entirely from home,” says KG. “I have freelance colleagues who write for the same publications as me in half a dozen different countries. We have the same editors and ultimately the same boss, but shop floor organizing isn’t an option. It’s only through the union that we’ve really met and been able to discuss rates, working conditions, contracts and other issues affecting us.”
The IWW FJU has also helped retrieve overdue invoices for freelance workers, scoring $150,000 from Outside Magazine. The victory came as a result of a dynamic campaign set in motion by the IWW FJU to identify and target delinquent publications. Once the IWW FJU found that Outside Magazine had the most outstanding invoices according to the union’s survey of freelancers, organizers undertook a further process of information-gathering before forming a committee tasked with drafting and sending a demand letter to the publication. This letter pushed Outside Magazine to agree to pay $150,000 in overdue invoices just six days later.
In addition to helping freelancers win overdue invoices and avoid pitch theft, the IWW FJU also organizes around other issues affecting freelance journalists, such as “work-for-hire” contracts.
“One of the most pernicious phenomena affecting our industry is ‘work-for-hire,’ in which a freelance contributor’s contract requires them to hand over all intellectual property rights to their work,” explains KG. “This means that they can’t receive income from licensing, reproduction, retransmission and copying levies, nor do they have the right to make any further use of their own work.”
At the same time, organizing represents only one aspect of the IWW FJU.
“Other than organizing, freelancing can be lonely work,” says Shane Campbell, cochair of the IWW FJU’s Outreach Committee. “FJU gave me a diverse group of people who share my values and have similar working conditions to me. The camaraderie I’ve been able to build with the other members is wonderful.”
“We’re here, we’re growing, and we’ll continue to work until every freelancer is organized and every publication has a fair and equitable contract,” says Campbell. “We promise to be a thorn in the side of every managing editor and publication owner who exploits freelancers. If you fit that description, you’re next.”